How Donald Trump Conned His Way to a Reputation for Great Wealth

Part of me thinks that if this had come out prior to the 2016 presidential election, it would have been devastating to Donald Trump, and part of me thinks that there’s simply no evidence that anything could penetrate the public’s perception that Trump has been a successful businessman. Parts of the story did emerge. That Trump sometimes made phone calls to reporters pretending to be someone else was reported, as was his obsession with being listed on the Forbes magazine list of America’s richest people. Many doubts were raised about the degree to which Trump made his own fortune and the ultimate size of his fortune. But this all percolated below the surface of the main narratives of the campaign.

Perhaps a first hand account from Jonathan Greenberg, who was responsible for compiling the Forbes list, accompanied by an audio recording of Trump impersonating a fictional ‘John Barron’ would have made a big difference. I can almost believe that it would have, especially if Greenberg had made the rounds of the talk shows and made sure to dominate a few news cycles.

Here are the basics of the story. Greenberg went around the country interviewing rich people and their associates, trying to ascertain with some degree of confidence how much they were worth. Many of these rich people didn’t want the attention and did not want to be on the list. Donald Trump not only wanted to be on the list, he wanted to be as close to the top as he could get. The problem was that his father owned most of the companies assets and Trump was only personally worth about five million dollars.

Using tricks taught to him by Roy Cohn (who I discussed at length yesterday) and with Cohn’s active assistance, Trump managed to trick Greenberg into listing his wealth at $200 million in 1983 and $400 million in 1984. As Greenberg notes, this error had the effect of being somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Armed with Forbes‘ highly inflated but totally incorrect assessment of his assets, Trump relentlessly promoted himself as a fabulously successful and rich real estate developer. And once Trump Tower was built and his first casinos opened, he had visual evidence to support this fiction. Yet, the perception that he had much more money and business savvy than he actually possessed helped him gain access to loans and created new business opportunities. He never had nearly as much money as he claimed to have, but his fortune did begin to grow for a time before it all came crashing down in the early- to mid-90s.

Trump also used this false perception to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of his bankruptcies. He landed The Apprentice show, that depicted him as a business genius, and he was able to trade on his reputation to rebuild his company as more of a licensing agency, trading on the brand value of his name, than an actual real estate development company. Most of things Trump has tried to brand (e.g. steaks, vodka, his fake university) have failed rather quickly, but he’s had some success with hotels and golf courses, and he’s gotten a steady flow of revenue from some of his luxury apartment deals.

In a real way, none of this would have possible if he hadn’t been able to con Jonathan Greenberg back in 1983 and 1984.

In May 1984, an official from the Trump Organization called to tell me how rich Donald J. Trump was. I was reporting for the Forbes 400, the magazine’s annual ranking of America’s richest people, for the third year. In the previous edition, we’d valued Trump’s holdings at $200 million, only one-fifth of what he claimed to own in our interviews. This time, his aide urged me on the phone, I needed to understand just how loaded Trump really was.

The official was John Barron — a name we now know as an alter ego of Trump himself. When I recently rediscovered and listened, for first time since that year, to the tapes I made of this and other phone calls, I was amazed that I didn’t see through the ruse: Although Trump altered some cadences and affected a slightly stronger New York accent, it was clearly him. “Barron” told me that Trump had taken possession of the business he ran with his father, Fred. “Most of the assets have been consolidated to Mr. Trump,” he said. “You have down Fred Trump [as half owner] . . . but I think you can really use Donald Trump now.” Trump, through this sockpuppet, was telling me he owned “in excess of 90 percent” of his family’s business. With all the home runs Trump was hitting in real estate, Barron told me, he should be called a billionaire.

At the time, I suspected that some of this was untrue. I ran Trump’s assertions to the ground, and for many years I was proud of the fact that Forbes had called him on his distortions and based his net worth on what I thought was solid research.

Looking back now, here’s how Greenberg assesses what happened.

I was a determined 25-year-old reporter, and I thought that, by reeling Trump back from some of his more outrageous claims, I’d done a public service and exposed the truth. But his confident deceptions were so big that they had an unexpected effect: Instead of believing that they were outright fabrications, my Forbes colleagues and I saw them simply as vain embellishments on the truth. We were so wrong.

This was a model Trump would use for the rest of his career, telling a lie so cosmic that people believed that some kernel of it had to be real. The tactic landed him a place he hadn’t earned on the Forbes list — and led to future accolades, press coverage and deals. It eventually paved a path toward the presidency.

Greenberg shouldn’t be too hard on himself. Trump was trained by Roy Cohn, and they’re two of the most accomplished conmen the country has ever produced.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.